Road Warriors of VolState

Sweat, pain, pit bulls, and shotguns—welcome to Gary Cantrell’s old-school ultra.

by Susan Reynolds

Heavy clouds hung low in the sky over Hickman, Kentucky. Seventeen runners gathering for the 2009 Last Annual VolState Road Race greeted one another in good humor, their nerves betrayed only by frequently witnessed fidgets: tugging at compression-shorts hemlines or unpacking and repacking small items in a waist pack. For most, the adventure began on Tuesday, July 14, 2009, when they drove their cars through the cornfields to a clearing in the woods at the edge of Castle Rock, Georgia. The cars would stand as monuments to the hopes of those preparing to run 314 miles to reclaim them. Vehicle keys were among the items being packed into those little packs that were zipped and unzipped numerous times as their owners waited for the ferry to Dorena Landing, Missouri.

From Castle Rock, they had ridden in staff members’ cars, sometimes speaking animatedly to newly made friends, sometimes making note of landmarks that would guide their way through 14 town squares. The first night they stayed at a motel in Shelbyville, Tennessee, not far from race director Gary Cantrell’s home.

On Wednesday, July 15, they were driven farther north and west to Union City, Tennessee—the closest place to Hickman with accommodations. Conversations were a little softer as the runners witnessed the miles they would soon cover on foot. It was hot, uncomfortably sticky. They gathered that night at a local restaurant for the “Last Supper,” the prerace buffet meal where they received final instructions, each others’ cell phone numbers, and some affectionate verbal abuse from Gary. Among their number were three kings, men who had run VolState before and had triumphed to win the title “King of the Road”—Dan Thompson (one of the original kings), DeWayne Satterfield (king two times previously, now with a goal that pitted him against the clock), and Carl Laniak (the youngest of the three, now an active member of the race staff).

They ate, they laughed, and they took photos of one another. One, the 18th, had not yet arrived. John A. Price of Virginia Beach, Virginia, was running a double. He had parked at Castle Rock on Saturday, July 11, to run from there to Hickman with the hope of joining the rest for the official start. They had seen John and had stopped to speak with him during the drive to Union City earlier that same day. He was happy for their company, though it was brief. His eagerness for conversation betrayed the loneliness that exists for the solo runner crossing so many miles. Staring out the windows of the restaurant to see the ominous black skies pour forth a torrential rain, some commented on John’s location, speculating on his well-being or lack of same. They could not know that even as they listened to the thunder, John had stopped the first half of his double during that very storm. He found shelter in Parsons, Tennessee, but went no farther on foot that night because a tornado touched down in the very town providing him sanctuary.

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